Monday, August 14, 2017

Genesis 17 - “Faithful God!”

God is utterly faithful to His people … even when our experience says otherwise.  And God, if He is our God requires us to be faithful.  We can be faithful to Him because He is first faithful to us. This is the great lesson before us this morning.

The biggest crisis in Abram and Sarai’s faith is that God has promised them an offspring and nothing appears to be happening.  Here is some perspective.  There are 13 years between chapters 16 and 17.We know this because Ishmael, born in Chapter 16 is now a 13 year old teenager (17:25).  Abram was 86 years old in 16:16 and he is now 99 old in 17:1,24.   Sarai is   90 years old (17:17).  Altogether it  has been  about 25 years since the LORD had first made a covenant promise to Abram and Sarai regarding a covenant offspring (12:1-3).  By now both knew that humanly speaking there was no chance for Sarai to conceive a child. We have seen in Chapter 16 that human scheming (Abram’s temporary lapse of faith) only made things worse.  Abram and Sarai began to entertain the thought that a covenant child could be produced by their own scheme.   Even in 17:18 we find Abram still bargaining with God, hoping somehow that Ishmael  might become  the future heir of the covenant.

But God had remained very quiet in those years between Chapters 16 and 17. There  were no  special appearances  and no further  assurances  with respect  to  the promise  of  an  offspring[1] .  One almost begins to wonder whether God was finished with Abram, following his great lack of faith in God’s promises in Chapter 16.  But God, who entered into a covenant with Abram in Chapter 12 is indeed faithful. He would not be quiet forever.  And so we read in 17:1,2

“When Abram was 99 years old  the LORD appeared   to Abram  and said to him: I am God Almighty (EL SHADDAI), walk before me and be blameless, that  I may make my covenant between me and  you , and  may  multiply you greatly.”

God had not forgotten Abram, and Abram’s faithlessness in Chapter 16 did not cause God to abandon him.  Quite on the contrary, God spoke again, and confirmed His covenant to Abram again.  In fact, covenant is a key word in this chapter. It’s a key word in the Bible. God’s faithfulness to you and I, rests on His New Covenant in Christ. The Covenant  is the most basic expression of God’s faithful character to us. It is powerfully seen in His dealings with Abram. Here in the 17th chapter, the word ‘covenant’ is mentioned 13 times. And God is committed as ever to fulfil His promise to Abram.

God’s silence in the life of a true believer must never be interpreted as a negative sign.  Just because God is not seen, heard or felt is not a sign that He is not there.   After I left my parent’s home, living in another city, there were long periods in which I did not hear from them nor speak to them. But I knew that they were there, and I knew that they were still my faithful parents!    

And we must not judge God’s faithfulness by our perception of time. God’s timing is clearly quite different to ours.  Peter reminds us   that for God a thousand years is like a day (2 Pet. 3:8). Whereas 25 years must have seemed like an eternity to Abram and Sarai, it wasn’t so for God. Impatience with God is the result of the fall, and has become one of our greatest enemies. Waiting on God is hard. It leads to making great mistakes because we are forever trying to formulate shortcuts to fulfil our desires.  It seems to me that our own generation driven by a culture of ‘instant gratification’ is exceptionally impatient. People want answers and solutions and they want them yesterday, and they want them according to their own imaginations and desires.  
But God knows what He is doing, and God is always on time: “ But when the fullness of time  had come , God  sent forth his Son...” (Gal. 4:4,5). Christianity is about long waiting. It took 2000 years after the promise was made to Abram for the Lord Jesus to come. Many in Israel,   for many years were longing for the Messiah’s  appearing (e.g. Lk 2:25,38; 1 Pet. 1:10),and even then many were not satisfied with His appearance.

If God is silent, there is a good reason. And if God has spoken once, He actually does not need to repeat Himself. This is especially true in Abram’s case. Babies are always a gift from God and many, many parents even in our day have had to wait for their gifts to arrive in God’s good time. Without God, Abram could do nothing to bring a covenant child into the world.  He tried, but look, where it got him. 

By grace, Abram’s faithful God appeared and He spoke to him again. This is the first time in the OT  that  God introduced Himself as EL SHADDAI ,  ‘God the Almighty’ – the God of the impossible, the  sovereign God , the God  who can suspend the laws of nature, and who can  make a woman bear a  baby in her nineties.  This God says to Abram, “walk before me and be blameless. Abram’s holy and faithful God requires him to be faithful and to be holy as He is holy (Lev.11:44; 1 Pet.1:16). Abram can walk blamelessly and upright before God, because the God who called him is also the God who equips him. “His divine power has granted to us all things  that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him  who called us  to his own glory and excellence.” (2 Pet.1:3). When a person becomes a believer, he is no longer a slave. He can choose to say ‘no’ to ungodliness, (though he may, like Abram also compromise).  But God calls us to be faithful, and it is our walk with God is the expression of our faith in Him.

17:2  “That  I may make my covenant  between me  and you , and may multiply you greatly.” In Abram’s mind there is still the thought that God might do this through Ishmael (17:18), but Abram’s thoughts are not God’s thoughts. God’s thoughts are bound to His  covenant and central to these covenant thoughts   for Abram is  a child called  Isaac,   born  of the covenant marriage  between Abram and Sarai (17:19)

17:3:  “Then Abram fell on his face” (see also 17:17). See Abram’s response - a mixture of worship and fear and disbelief – “Shall a child born to a man who is hundred years old?  Shall Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?”  The answer is YES! The faithful  God is still where He  was  when He first  promised to make Abram “the father of  a multitude  of  nations” (Ch. 12 à17:4) and  He says it again in  17:5 and again in  17:6 . “I will make you into nations.”

17:5:  That is the reason why Abram’s name (exalted father) was changed, because God promised to make him a ‘father of a multitude’. That is what the name ‘Abraham’ means. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. Both her names mean, ‘princess’.  But there is a difference. Her father had named her ‘princess’ but he had no power to make her one. God alone had that power, and she , like the promise  to  Abraham would become the mother of many nations, and  kings would come from her (17:16) God fulfills what he promises. He is faithful.
Their new names were an indication that things were beginning to happen.   By taking on this new name Abraham and Sarah were beginning   to live as if the fact had already happened. 
How little did  Abraham  understand  the  immensity of that promise, and despite  that  He was enabled  to  become  the father of faith, the father  of  all those that would believe God  (all those  who would be born into the covenant),  a  father  of  a  people from  every nation, tongue and tribe. How little did Abraham know, and yet  he believed and  the Lord Jesus  credits him with a faith that  saw  far head  in John 8:56: “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad.”  Abraham was enabled in His faith, because the God that called Him was faithful to Him.  The basis of our faith is the faithfulness of our God. God is faithful. He leads us and keeps us and He bears with us even when we struggle to fully believe.
It clearly wasn’t easy for Abraham.  He trusted God and yet it wasn’t always easy to see the way ahead. By this time Abraham had entertained the thought that Ishmael might live under God’s blessing (17:18), but he was becoming content with a substitute for the blessing of God.  His hopes were focused on Ishmael.  He desperately needed a reminder that this wasn’t it.  Oh faithful God, thank you for adjusting our cheap visions!  Thank God   that  from time to time He revives  our  feeble  faith by meeting  with us and  by  causing His Holy Spirit  to  make  us able  hear His Word in a much more profound and  intimate manner, stirring up renewed  faith, hope and love  in our souls, so that  we are  weaned from our small ambitions and become more  fully conformed to His plan and purpose.

And so Abraham is promised at this time afresh that he would be exceedingly fruitful (17:6) and, that nations and kings (and ultimately the King of kings) would come from his and Sarah’s union. He is promised afresh that God’s covenant will extend to  his offspring (17:7 repeated in 17:8,9,10,19). This covenant promise , we see in the NT extends to the family of true believers  in all the world and among all nations , tribes and tongues.  This covenant promise  includes  the  promise of the land of Canaan  (17:8), which is,  as we  see, fulfilled  in the NT in  the  eternal kingdom. All  true believers , all the sons and daughters of Abraham   will  be gathered  in that sacred land, the kingdom of Heaven,  the renewed   creation in which  God rules  and reigns  without dispute -  “ I  will be  their God…”. 

Then God gives Abraham a command:  “As for you, you shall keep my covenant” (17:9). And God stipulates how the keeping of that covenant should look like. God’s faithful covenant grace to him demanded a visible response:  Every male born to his offspring was required to be circumcised.  This outwards sign was to be a mark of belonging to the covenant community, the company of the faithful believers in God.  And yet we know that circumcision has in itself never saved anyone. Ishmael the thirteen year old son of Abraham was circumcised on the same day as Abraham (17:26), and yet he showed no evidence of a heart renewed by grace. Ishmael bore the sign of the covenant, but he lived in hostility toward all his kinsmen. (Gen. 16:12). The Old Testament hope  was that,  with the coming of the Messiah, the hearts of every member of the New Covenant family would be circumcised. In fact,  Paul told the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6) and, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).  Circumcision, or it’s NT equivalent, ‘baptism’, was an important sign of belonging to the believing community, but it needed to be preceded by a  true  circumcision  of the heart, or in the case of the NT, a baptism in  or with the Holy Spirit.  

So then, this faithful God speaks again to Abraham.  He reassures   him that the promise is not via Hagar but via Sarah, his princess. She shall bear a son, ‘Isaac’. His name means, “he laughs” and even the date of his birth is announced: “at this time next year” (17:21), twenty-six years after God first told Abram that he would have a son. Ishmael too will become a great nation but he is not the one through whom God will establish his covenant. Isaac alone will be that one.

God only has one way to enter into the covenant which leads to spiritual blessing and ultimately eternal life. It is by faith in His promises, and from a NT perspective   it is very clear that your only hope is in the Son of the New Covenant - the Lord Jesus Christ! He is that door, that gate, the way, the truth the life. Follow Him faithfully all the days of your life.  

As we come to the Lord’s table to celebrate His great work for us,   you need to remember that this table is for those that have been embraced by the faithful God of the New Covenant. This table is for those that have in turn embraced him in love and with thankful hearts, and who in dependence upon divine grace, seek to live faithfully before Him. Amen 

[1]  Gen. 12:7; 13:15,16;  15:4,5

Monday, August 7, 2017

Acts 14: 1-23 ”A Tale of Three Cities - The Gospel brings Salvation and Division "

“A Tale of Three Cities”, with apology to Charles Dickens who wrote the classic ,”A Tale of two Cities” (1859), a historical novel which is set in London and in Paris and the French countryside at the time of the French Revolution(1789). Incidentally, this book  has been listed  the second bestselling book in the history of literature[1] (The Bible, the all-time best seller,  and other religious  or political books excluded). Approximately 200 million copies have been sold.

The book begins with these famous opening lines:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

As I was researching  the  “Tale of two Cities”  on the internet, I saw  that   a book was in fact released this year  with the title “A Tale of Three Cities” ,  written   by  Bettany Hughes. This book is about  Istanbul, a famous city in modern day Turkey, the Byzantion of the ancient past (660 BC) ; the Constantinople that was the capital of the Christian Byzantine empire  (330 AD)  and seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which then became the  Istanbul  of the Muslim Ottoman empire (1453 AD) - three cities in one!  The cities in both books, London , Paris  and Istanbul   have  been associated with turbulent  times. 

Turbulence ! This  is the word  which we now  wish to use as we   observe  what the gospel  does as it invades these three cities,  Iconium (14:1-7), Lystra (14:8-20) and Derbe (v.21). These  cities  in Acts 14 are all found   in  modern Turkey.

I draw your attention  to  the  key text   in verse  22 (Paul and  Barnabas)  strengthening  the souls of  the disciples, encouraging  them to continue in the faith, and saying  that through many  tribulations  we must enter the kingdom of God.”   Here is something that we need to settle in our minds today. We have somehow developed the idea that the gospel  must bring joy, peace and happiness and paradise   into the world.  Where did we get that idea from? Only shallow reflection can come to such a conclusion and our text  certainly does not concur with such a sentiment. And neither does the Lord Jesus. 

Hear these words from   Luke  12:49-53 :
49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

John 15:18-23:  18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin,[a] but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also.

Now it is undoubtedly true that the gospel brings joy, peace and happiness to those that believe in Jesus, who are truly freed from their sins, who have been predestined by God, loved, adopted, who have become co-heirs with Christ and citizens of heaven.  But it is also true that this same gospel that liberates some also  brings  hatred, division  and unhappiness   to those  that will not accept the gospel, and who will in fact  come to hate and oppose the gospel.  To Matthew Henry is attributed the saying ,  “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay.[2] And  Spurgeon , citing this text  adds, “the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins” [3]. And so we observe  from the testimony of the Bible and from church history  that the kingdom of God  comes with  joy and  it comes amidst sorrow, bringing about, as Dickens  said, the best and  the worst of times.  

That is the  matter which  now consider  as we  take a brief look at  Chapter 14, and I submit  to you that this is a typical  experience , one that we must expect  also in our endeavours  to  bring the gospel  to  this generation  in its  many and varied contexts (family, friends, work colleagues, society at large).  This has been the pattern in the book of Acts so far. In our previous chapter we had seen this. The Gospel which Paul and Barnabas proclaimed had been accepted by Sergius Paulus the governor of Cyprus, but resisted by Elymas the magician. (13:1-12). They had preached the gospel in Pisidian Antioch   amidst great interest, but they were driven out of the city by the Jews filled with jealousy, stirring up persecution against Paul and Barnabas (13:13-52).

1.     Iconium  14:1-7
And so we see the pattern continue in Chapter 14.  The gospel is proclaimed in the Jewish synagogue, and a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. BUT the unbelieving Jews stirred up the gentiles and poisoned their minds… (14:2) – there you have it in one sentence.  There we find the effective preaching of the gospel and the immediate poisoning of the minds of the crowd by the enemies of the gospel.
We further note that the message of the gospel is a word of grace (14:3) and as such it should have been accepted by everyone, BUT note what the gospel accomplishes:  The people of the city were divided by the gospel (14:4). Attempt was made by both gentile and Jew to mistreat and stone Paul and Barnabas (14:5). This caused them to flee to Lystra  and Derbe  some  75 kilometres  to the east. Note the number of times Paul and the apostles had to flee for their lives, simply because of the gospel.

2.     Lystra and Derbe (14:8-20)
Luke focuses on what  happens in Lystra and gives little  insight  into what happened in Derbe, but  we believe  that the patterns are typical.    
The healing of a crippled man (14:8-10) almost sounds like a repetition of Acts 3:1ff , the story of the crippled man at the temple gate called ‘ Beautiful’ in which Peter and John  were the agents of divine healing.  What is significant is the extreme reaction of the crowd in Lystra in response to this healing.  From worshipping Paul and Barnabas as Hermes and Zeus as being gods, they  later stoned Paul – and again we must observe ,… for the sake of the gospel.

John  Stott, in his commentary gives some helpful insight into the mind-set of the people in Lystra.[4] About 50 years earlier the Latin poet Ovid had written a literary piece called “Metamorphoses”, relating to an ancient local legend. The story goes that the supreme god, Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks) and his son Mercury (Hermes) once visited the hill country of Phrygia, disguised as mortal men.  They sought hospitality but were turned away a thousand times. At last they were offered lodging in a tiny cottage, by a couple called Philemon and Baucis. Later the gods rewarded them, but destroyed the homes of those who would not take them in by a flood.  It is reasonable to suppose that the people of Lystra knew this story, and so they would have been anxious   not to suffer the same fate as the inhospitable Phrygians.  
It is interesting to note how Paul and Barnabas responded to this false worship of them in vv.  15-17. This  is probably  an excerpt from the message that they spoke to these people.  And since these people were pure pagans, there is no reference to   the Scriptures (as in  Paul’s sermon in Ch. 13 in the context of a Synagogue)  because these people didn't know the Bible. So he begins where they are. He starts with general revelation. He establishes a point of contact with them, and he begins by telling them about the Creator, who made the heavens and the earth, the God who provides rain and fruitful seasons, and who satisfies the heart with food and gladness. (14: 16,17). It is clear that in Paul’s  mind there is  not different God in Lystra  and another one in Jerusalem. There only one God. But note, Paul is not able to get to the gospel of Jesus before  hostile  Jews came from Antioch  and Iconium,  and they persuaded the crowds.  Paul is dragged outside of the city and he's left outside of the city dead (14:19). So Paul and Barnabas were never enabled to finish  their   gospel presentation in Lystra on this occasion, but completed the work  as they revisited theses cities  on their return.

Isn’t it amazing that   Paul , after having been stoned  was able to preach the  gospel the very next day in Derbe, and in this  instance it is reported that  they had made many disciples (14:21) . Did it not have something to do with prayer of faith in 14:20?

And then they retraced their steps  back to Lystra, Iconium and  Pisidian Antioch , “strengthening the souls of the  disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (14:22). There we  are -  Gospel triumph and Gospel opposition. Both are marks of a biblical  Gospel  ministry.

Summary and Conclusion

You may say, ‘I don't experience such trouble and opposition and difficulties’.  Let me ask you plainly then: Is this it because you never speak about Jesus? Is this because your life says nothing about Jesus, and is a challenge to no one?
I think that one of the major challenges for the modern church and the modern Christian is that they want to be accepted by the world so very desperately. They do not want to be different.  They do not want to be counter cultural. The average modern Christian in our society appears to want to blend in with the world and be the friend of the world.
When this happens  we  may in fact not  see  much suffering  for the sake of the gospel  in  our  ranks, for  our  enemy the devil knows that he  has you and your  church in his possession. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Well, it mustn’t just make us think. It must make us weep and repent and return to Christ’s design for His followers, who were never called to enjoy a cushy life, but who were designed for a life of spiritual fruitfulness.  See how many converts as well as mental and physical bruises Paul and Barnabas   left in their wake in this first missionary journey.  It is all part of our calling. And it will be part of our eternal reward when we finally enter the kingdom of God. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Genesis 16 : “The Tragedy of the Shortcut”

·        Gen.12:1-9:  God's covenant with Abraham. God would bless him, make him a great nation;  through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. His descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. God would bless those who blessed him, and curse those who cursed him.
·        Gen.12:10-20:  Abram's faith is tested and he fails because  he does not trust God  when he  goes to Egypt. 
·        Gen. 13 &14,  by contrast  reveals  the triumph of Abram’s faith. 
·        Gen. 15: Here God reaffirms His covenant with Abram in a most striking and picturesque way. Here we also find that great declaration that Abram was justified by faith.  Genesis 15:6 is a fundamental text for Paul when he established the doctrine of justification by faith. This covenant  is more fundamental than Sinai, and its basis  was  grace and not law. Here God does two important things for Abram.
(i)                God reiterates His covenant promises to Abram.
(ii)              God confirms that covenant by a  sacrifice of blood. God binds  Himself  with a strong  oath to Abram. 

That is the background which brings us to Genesis 16, and sadly here we find another crisis in Abram’s faith.   This chapter   teaches us something about the unhappy consequences of trying to force God’s hand. It is the age old tragedy of taking the spiritual shortcut.   Just when we had thought that Abram had learned all the vital spiritual  lessons   following his  previous lapse of faith,  just when we  would have expected him to  move on in  spiritual victory, we find him capitulating  yet again to faithlessness  and unbelief.

Central to the story of Abram is the promise of a son. The opening verse, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children…” [16:1], needs to be read in the context of the preceding chapter 15. In 15:2 Abram asks God, “What will you give me, for I continue childless?” God answers him,“… your very own son shall be your heir” [15:4].  And in 15:8   Abram presses God concerning the promise of land again, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  Then, in 15:9-21 follows the making of a solemn covenant of which God is the instigator. In this irrevocable covenant God binds himself to giving Abram a promised land and an heir from his covenant wife Sarai.

Now, back to 16: 1b-2 and these tragic words: ” (Sarai) had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram. Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children (never mind the promise of 15:4). Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram  listened to the voice of Sarai.”
You would have  thought that if you had  had such a close encounter  with God  and such strong reassurance  from  God  as Abram did,  or from a NT perspective,   if you had  seen the miracles, works, wisdom  and weighty words  of Jesus,  you would have  thought  that you would never doubt God again. Think again.  All these experiences failed to keep Abram from trusting in God’s promises.   
And all this  begs us to ask  those  great questions  again, “Who then can be righteous?  “Who can be saved, if no one is righteous…if no one is faithful?”,[1] and, “How can I be saved from this corrupt and faithless mind and body?”[2]  The entire basis  of  Abram’s  justification  and our justification  becomes  a talking point  for us , and we know  that it cannot be  our personal righteousness or faithfulness  that justifies us  before  this holy God.   The Bible insists that our justification is by grace through faith in God alone. Our works do follow, and in the main we see that Abram loves  and follows God, but he would never meet the criteria  of having perfectly obeyed  God in everything.  Only Jesus would do that!

And so, the very first   insight from this passage is this: Our salvation  and our life before God  is all of grace and never on the basis of our works. Our salvation is a miracle.   God  sovereignly chose Abram out of a pagan society , and God  eventually chooses  to glorify  Himself in  a miracle birth. Sarai’s  eventual conception of Isaac, will be against all human odds. God remains that God who brings  things out of nothing , and He shares His glory with no one!

The second insight is this: We human beings, even we Christians  have a hard time trusting God for His promises.  God has made a clear and strong commitment  to Abram and Sarai in Chapter 15 , and   yet according to  Abram and Sarai things are not happening fast enough. And so Sarai began to scheme. The modern equivalent of that scheme is called ‘surrogate motherhood’. Many years ago a woman came to me  and  told me that she had  been approached to be  a surrogate mother. Having studied the ethics and the emotional  implications  I advised her against it. Whether she went ahead or not, I do not know.  
From my reading, I also  learned that it was not an uncommon custom  even  in that day  for childless  women  to obtain children  through  another woman. For instance,  Hamurabi,a Babylonian king (c.1750 BC)  produced a  code of laws. Law 146 refers to a childless   wife giving  a female slave to her husband  to bear children[3].  In Genesis 30, in the family drama of Jacob   we also find this practise repeated as Rachel and Leah take turns in the baby race.  So, the prevailing culture was sanctioning this, but God did not. 
Paul makes reference to this in Galatians 4:21-23 in which he makes a contrast between Hagar and Sarah:  "Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by the free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise…". Paul’s plain point here is that the slave woman’s son was the result of a fleshly act. The sinful will of Abram and Sarai produced Ishmael-  which is  essentially a failure to trust  in the Lord . The will of God was to wait for Isaac, the son of the promise.  And here is the problem. Patience and trust in God’s purposes! It has been 10 years since Abram has arrived in Canaan, and still no offspring.  And so, he buckles under the persistent pressure of his wife, and the consequences are there for us to see. In many ways this story reminds us of the Garden of Eden.  That was exactly what Sarai’s first parents, Adam and Eve, did.   And why did Abram not rebuke Sarai for her unbelief and remind her  of the promises of God?  Why did he not say to her, “Sarai, God will provide a child. He always keeps his promise. Let’s keep trusting him. We don’t need  Hagar to get a child.”    But he did not do that. And so they went against God’s explicit command.  

Now, it is clear that Sarai knew that her childlessness was from the Lord - cf.  16:2, and as far as that was concerned she understood the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. So what was the problem? Well, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God  was in conflict with her desire!  And so, even though Abram and Sarai knew good theology , they weren’t good at  practical theology  in terms of waiting upon God’s  fulfilment, and so  they  began to think pragmatically , and they began to scheme as to how they might help God  out  this matter – after all , as the oft quoted Proverb says, “ God helps those that help themselves!”  This is  probably the most often quoted phrase that is not found in the Bible. Whatever the original source of this saying, the Bible teaches the opposite. God helps the helpless!
From this impatience and this lack of trust in God flow all the negative consequences in this decision and so in vv. 3-6 we see a  string of  consequences of Abram and Sarai's decision.  It's a mess!  And no one is happy. 
Hagar, as soon as she conceives, looks with contempt on her mistress (vv. 4,5).Sarai herself is filled with envy and with bitterness, and that bitterness overflows into blaming Abram (v.5). Abram in return does what men do so well. He throws the ball back into her court:   ‘I thought this was your idea’, and he takes the hands off approach … ‘Do as you please… I’m out of here!’ (v.6)    The next  thing which happens is that Sarai abuses Hagar  to the point  at which she can take it no longer and she flees from her.  Abram’s unhappy, Sarai is unhappy, Hagar is unhappy.  Nobody wins. This is the tragedy of the  shortcut.


vv. 4-14   The results of Sarai's  abuse.  Hagar flees into the wilderness, where she is  comforted by an  angel of the Lord at  a spring of water in the wilderness. Here we see the next great   see the next great  wonderful truth in  terms of the character and the attributes of God. God cares for the vulnerable. Although God’s great  redemptive plan  through Abram remains the central  focus of  the Bible story, yet we learn also  that  God cared for Hagar, and her offspring even  though she was insignificant with regard to  redemptive history.  We learn that even though God has a particular love for His people , we can also  truly say that God loves the world! Even though Abram had been unfaithful in his dealings with Hagar, God was faithful to her.  He gives her a son.  Ishmael means, "God hears.” He reveals Himself to her, He blesses her, He promises her protection, and  promises that her  offspring  would  also  become a great nation.  But  the kind of blessing that is given to her and the words that are spoken about Ishmael remind us of the difference between the blessings upon Jacob and Esau. God blessed Esau, but all the blessings that He gave him in Genesis 27 were earthly and temporal blessings. All the spiritual blessings  and eternal blessings went to Jacob. So also, we will see  that the promises given to  Ishmael  were not spiritual but temporal blessings. Again and again we see the distinction that God makes in His plan of redemption.

God gives this prophecy about her son, “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility towards all his brothers” (v.12). That proves to be the history of Ishmael. He wandered like a wild donkey, always on the move, unable to put down roots, a divisive influence everywhere, even against his own brothers. In Islam, Ishmael is regarded as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. He also became associated with Mecca and the construction of the Kaaba, as well as equated with the term "Arab" by some.[4]

Vv. 15,16. The birth of Ishmael is recorded, but in terms of the promises of the covenant,  this  has not taken  Abram forward towards the fulfillment of God's promises towards him. In fact, he has complicated things, and as a result of this there will be many troubles waiting for Abram.  In the mean-time  God was still going to have to do a miracle to bring the son of promise into the world through Sarai.


We say after so many sermons, “Thank you, Lord, for saying this to me, and now I’m going to do something about it,” and that is good, but this passage reminds us again that we need to be  not only careful listeners and theologians. We need to be careful and patient hearers who do not  chose the  shortcut , but who wait upon the Lord.  
We need to remember that God is not dependent on our scheming.  And God will bring about His purposes without our interference.  We must learn to trust God’s promises.  
Perhaps God has you in a place where all you can do is stand still.   By nature we do not like that. But we need to be careful not to be tempted to take the shortcut.  Do not grieve the Lord by your impatience. Do not seek ways of accomplishing what God alone is able to do.  

Nowhere can this be more challenging than in the urgency we sometimes sense in getting kingdom work done.  We must remember that men and women are born of God alone into His family. The new birth is His work. Not ours! When it doesn’t happen quickly enough in your children or in the church don’t try to help God out. Pray and wait upon the genuine work of God. Abram didn’t need to produce the promised Seed by his own strength. He needed God to come and do what He had decided to do. He needed to believe God- and  so do you!   Amen .

[1] Rom  3:9-18
[2] Rom 7:15-24
[3] Philip Eveson: The Book of Origins , Evangelical Press,  pp 299-300

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Acts 13:13- 52 -”Paul’s First Recorded Gospel Sermon”

Note the journey so far: Antioch - Seleucia (Syria) - Salamis & Paphos (Cyprus) - sailed to Perga in Pamphilia (John Mark left here to go back to Jerusalem - see comment in Acts 15: 36 - 41) - Antioch (in Pisidia- 160 km's beyond the mountains from Perga).
Pisidian Antioch (Galatia) 13: 14 – 52: This is where our main focus and interest now lies. Like Antioch in Syria   (today Antakya, now a poor town with a few thousand inhabitants) Antioch in Galatia (today in ruins and close to the village of Yalvac in the Isparta province in southern Turkey) was founded by Seleucus Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Dynasty.[1] He founded nearly 60 cities, and 16 of them were named in honour of his father Antiochus.

Our text   can be divided into three sections:
(i)               Paul’s  Gospel Preaching  13:14-37
(ii)             Application of that which he  preached : 13 :38-41
(iii)           Response to what  he preached  13:42-52

Observe :
  • This is a Jewish context; it's a synagogue, attended by Jews and God-fearing gentiles (13:16, 26, 44, 48).  It was his habit to go to the synagogue (cf. also 13:5) - to the Jews first. 
  •   The liturgy: V. 15after reading from the law and the prophets” – part of the liturgy.  The Synagogue service would have begun with the Shema (Deut.  6: 4ff:" Hear oh Israel, the Lord your God is one God. Love the Lord your God…), some prayers… some Scripture readings, from the law, prophets etc., followed by an   expository sermon, concluding with a blessing. 
  •   Paul and Barnabas were visitors. Perhaps they recognised from his   dress that Paul was a Rabbi - therefore he was invited to bring a word of   encouragement. 
  •   In this context people know the Old Testament Scriptures, so the sermon is full of quotations from the Old Testament:  Psalm 2:7, Psalm 16:10, Isa. 55:3, Hab. 1:5. Paul is preaching to people who are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. This is very interesting because in Chapter 14, to the pagans at Lystra (14: 8 - 18), and the philosophers at Athens (17:16- 34), the sermon will be different- different content, different style, different approach.  But in all the sermons the final focus is essentially the same:  Jesus Christ and he crucified!
  • Evangelistic preaching demands that we understand our hearers – the context, their background, their ability to understand.

So this is Paul’s first recorded sermon by Luke who undertook to write an orderly account (Lk. 1:3). This is not the first sermon that Paul had preached. We know of occasions where he had preached  in Damascus,  Jerusalem, in Antioch in Syria, on the island of Cyprus, but it is here in  Pisidian Antioch that we get the first insight  into  the content of Paul’s gospel  preaching  - the message of this salvation v. 26 ;  the  good news  ( gospel) in v. 32 .  

The Theme of Paul's Sermon  

"How the God of this people Israel (v. 17) has brought the Saviour – Jesus, to Israel - just as He promised “(v.23).  

The Substance of Paul’s Sermon - 13: 14-37

Paul presents  Jesus  as the climax of biblical history and in facing a Hebrew congregation , a people familiar with the scriptures, it  is  important that he  reasons with them from the  Old Testament scripture.  He begins with  the patriarchs , and speaks about the  time  in Egypt  under Moses , and the Exodus , the period of the Judges, mentioning  the major figure Samuel  who gave Israel their first king , Saul  and then David.  From David he makes a giant leap to John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah … Jesus.  A son of David, it was expected in Israel, was going to be the Messiah…and here He is!   Paul says that Jesus was the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. So, what Paul is doing here is that he is interpreting the Old Testament for them. He's giving them a key to understand their Old Testament history, and he is saying to the, “Look, here He is!”

But it’s not so simple : The  leading  religious  rulers and  men among the Jews did not recognise this Jesus , because they did not understand the utterances of the prophets  which are read every Sabbath. So, they condemned Him (v.27) but even that, says Paul was in fulfilment of the Scriptures (vv. 27b-29). They simply did what was written … what was predicted by the prophets.
But more than that, and here comes the exciting part, God raised Him from the dead! The risen Lord Jesus, unlike His human ancestor David - did not taste death and decay. He arose, and took death and sin and Satan captive. They hold no more terror for those who put their trust in Jesus. (v.30). The Resurrection is the proof and vindication of the fact that Christ is the Messiah. And more than that, He appeared too many who witnesses of this fact (v.31) were. And all this is a fulfilment of the OT Scriptures (vv.  33-37). this is the sum and substance of the gospel of Jesus   the Messiah - His life and His death and His resurrection.

The Application of Paul’s Sermon - 13:38-41

The preaching of the Gospel  leads to  making a choice between life and death, and it all depends on what we will do with Jesus.

1.     LIFE: Justification by faith vv. 38,39
Through this man …
(i)              v. 38! Forgiveness of sins is effectively achieved – once and for all! Jesus is the end of the sacrificial system. Forgiveness in Christ, the Lamb of God is absolute and final.
(ii)            v. 39! Freed from the demands of law – no one kept the law. The word freed is the word for justification.  No one is justified by obedience to the Law plus faith in Jesus Christ. The Law (holy as it is) cannot contribute anything to our justification.  The law (which no one keeps) can only declare us guilty before God.  Jesus secured salvation for us by inviting us to look to Him. He alone can justify us. That is Paul’s gospel.  Notice too, how he speaks of “everyone who believes”   i.e.  Jew and Gentile – the whole world, whoever believes is freed and saved!

2.     DEATH : vv. 40, 41
A warning from the prophets (based on Hab. 1:5).  Those that do not believe the gospel are scoffers, and they will perish!  They will incur the wrath of God. Their sins will be on their own head, and they themselves have to bear the consequences for this.
This leads to the next and last point - the conclusion.

The Consequences of Paul’s Sermon - 13:42 - 52

(i)         Invited to speak further about these things - next Sabbath (v. 42)
(ii)      An amazing response - "almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord" (Note: crowd is not an achievement - it is an opportunity).
(iii)     A mixed response: The word of God will always have that sort of effect in any community!
           ·       The Jews were filled with jealousy- did not appreciate this opportunity (v.45) - caused them to be expelled from their region (v.50) ;
              ·       The gentiles were glad, - and honoured the word of the Lord (v.48).

The overall effect however was this:  "The word of the Lord spread through the whole region." (v.49).Wherever the Word about Jesus   goes it will bear fruit. That is the typical pattern. Those who respond best are usually those who have had few religious privileges. Those who are hardest of hearing are usually those who have heard the Gospel often, but remain unresponsive and even hostile!

And notice the effect on the disciples of Jesus   (v.52). After they were driven out of the city, “they were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit…” It wasn’t the persecution that they rejoiced in as much as knowing that the Word of God was producing the right effects. That is what Paul and Barnabas were sensing here.

What is the Ultimate Purpose of Preaching the Gospel?

Why did Paul and Barnabas embark on this so called "First Missionary journey"?  
Why did they travel so far - just to speak to people in Pisidian Antioch?
Why should we be concerned about the spiritual plight of people in far countries?
Why should we go out of our way and speak to some stranger about his/her need for the gospel?

Paul and Barnabas were essentially convinced from the OT Scriptures, and from the Life and Teaching of Jesus that people are lost in their sins and trespasses, and unless they embrace this good news they were going perish.

Those that have been entrusted with the Gospel are responsible to tell the Gospel. We are responsible for this generation. Are you praying and working for the advance of the gospel?   

What on earth are we doing for heaven’s sake?

[1] Seleucid dynasty, which existed from 312 BC to 63 BC, following the death of Alexander the Great